Tony Stewart drives across the grassy area of the infield before getting back on the track and eventually on to victory.
PADRAIC MAJOR / AP Enlarge
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The 43 drivers who lined up for yesterday's Busch Series Race here don't have a whole lot of experience running on grass. Put them on asphalt or dirt and watch 'em go, but grass is for horse races.
Tony Stewart used a short but effective sprint across the grass - at 190 mph - to help carry him to victory in the Hershey's Take 5 300 at Daytona International Speedway. With 25 laps to go in the race, Stewart wiggled a little coming through a turn and had to slice across the corner of the infield to get back to the track and stay in the race.
He worked his way back toward the front, and Stewart shot past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and back into the lead with less than three laps to go. Kevin Harvick, who owns the car Stewart was driving, tucked in behind Stewart and held off Earnhardt and Martin Truex Jr. the rest of the way. Stewart took the checkered flag under caution after a last-lap crash happened behind him.
"That looked like it was gonna be big when he lit out across the grass like that," said Earnhardt, a two-time Busch Series champion, "but that's Tony Stewart. He can drive off the track and back on and still win the race. It's tough to lose, but it's not so bad when you lose to a guy driving like that."
Stewart, the former Cup champion and IRL champion, was pushing leader Paul Menard with 75 laps to go, and took the lead a few laps later. After a couple of cautions shuffled the lineup, Earnhardt elected to stay out on the track when most of the field pitted. He led with 20 laps to go, gambling he could hold on with old tires.
"We came from about 17th with 10 laps to go," Stewart said. "We just got a good run in there with Kevin, and we went by everybody. That save in the grass was something. It makes you feel good. There wasn't anything anybody did wrong, it was just good, hard racing."
It was the first Busch Series win of Stewart's career, and it ended a streak of three straight wins in Busch openers by Earnhardt. Stewart led 46 laps in the race.
"I've waited a long time to try and get a Busch win," Stewart said. "It's nice to finally get one under my belt. We've had some pretty good runs in these races, but something always seemed to happen to us."
Stewart, who starts fourth in today's Daytona 500, did not finish on the lead lap in two previous Busch races at the Speedway.
"Tony Stewart, he's the man today," Carl Edwards said. "He got out there on the grass and he saved it. That kind of driving is fun to see."
After Harvick, Earnhardt and Truex, Robby Gordon took fifth, salvaging something from the weekend after failing to qualify for the 500. Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip and Greg Biffle followed Gordon across the finish line, with 19-year-old rookie Reed Sorenson and Edwards in pursuit.
"Me and Michael were just sitting back there at the start," said Earnhardt, who was 26th at the start. "We were waiting on a wreck or something to make a move, and it never happened."
Sorenson nailed down his fourth top-10 finish in six Busch starts.
"I was kind of upset there that I ended ninth," Sorenson said, "but I kind of looked up at the scoreboard and realized that all those guys around me are Nextel Cup guys. I'm pretty happy where we finished. It's my first run here, first run for our team. I think when we come back here in July, we'll have a pretty good shot to do the same thing."
Pole-sitter Joe Nemechek battled a loose car all day, had a jack fail on a tire change, and limped to a 14th-place finish. Kyle Busch, who took the lead from Nemechek on the first lap, was black-flagged for passing below the yellow line and came in 34th.
Menard led 37 laps, but didn't have the drafting help when he needed it to stay up front.
"Unfortunately, the high side of the track was where we had the best chance of moving up through the field when we fell behind," Menard said, "and every time I tried to make a run up there, no one would go with me, so we got hung out to dry a few too many times."